A printed daily newspaper does so much more than just deliver the news. From our biggest cities to our tiniest towns, everyday readers find the events that reinforce the social fabric of their communities. We read of births and deaths, impending nuptials, pets lost and found — bits of paper are clipped and saved, often for generations, pressed between the pages of a Bible, a scrapbook — or, more often in my case, a cookbook.
When plans to reduce New Orleans’ only daily paper, the Times-Picayune, founded in 1837, to just three days a week were revealed, the city was enraged. The trend toward increased online coverage at the expense of print may not be news, but the New Orleans populace reads the daily paper — in paper form — in numbers greater than those of any other U.S. metropolis.
The paper taught New Orleanians how to cook
Why should this matter to an online food community such as Zester Daily? Consider for a moment, the impact the Times-Picayune has had in my life, and multiply it exponentially among the papers’ 150,000-plus readers. I’ve eagerly anticipated the arrival of the Thursday food section since I was 9 or 10, when French-trained, Belgian cooking teacher Myriam Guidroz contributed a weekly column called Pot Au Feu. Written with a teacher’s sensibilities, those columns were my first cooking lessons and they began my passionate love affair not only with the Times-Picayune, but with food.
I was not the first to learn to cook from the newspaper. For more than a century, New Orleans homemakers acquired skills from one of the earliest, most treasured books on Creole cooking, “The Picayune’s Creole Cook Book,” which was first published by the newspaper in 1901 and reprinted many times. In 1987, a 629-page Sesquicentennial Edition, compiled and edited by the paper’s food writer Marcelle Bienvenu, was published to celebrate the paper’s 150th anniversary. The classic Creole recipes are still authentic and fresh, and the cookbook retains bible status among Louisiana cooks.
Hurricane Katrina is to thank for another, equally important cookbook to come from the pages of the Picayune. Most of New Orleans spent more than two weeks underwater after the 2005 hurricane and subsequent levee failure. The vast majority of the city’s inhabitants lost most or all of their belongings, but when the paper’s food section resumed just eight weeks later, it became obvious that treasured recipe collections were among the most painful losses.
Rebuilding a city’s food memory
On that October day in 2005, food editor Judy Walker coined a new slogan for “Exchange Alley,” her weekly food swap column, with the inspirational headline “Rebuild New Orleans, Recipe by Recipe.” Walker was able to research the paper’s archives to fulfill many of the reader’s requests, finding that seafood stuffed mirliton (chayotes) that “tasted just like Grandma’s,” the favorite chicken casserole and the cake-like banana bread that could comfort and console.
Readers helped with a deluge of authentic recipes from restaurant and home kitchens that had somehow weathered the hurricane. The resulting collection, “Cooking Up a Storm,” is a testimony to the drive and determination of the people of New Orleans, one of the world’s greatest food cities. It is also a vivid demonstration of the power a print newspaper food section can wield.
Awards abound at the paper. Food writer Brett Anderson won two James Beard awards for his reporting after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010. In a series of front-page articles, Anderson told the story of the fourth-generation Collins Oyster Co. struggling to keep the century-old family business alive as oil gushed into the Gulf and the freshwater diversion used to drive it back flooded their beds, killing every last oyster.
In 1996, an eight-day study of food reporting from an ecological point of view resulted in the first of three Pulitzer prizes awarded to the Times-Picayune. The newspaper examined the life-changing situations facing the fishing world, from threats of pollution to over-fishing and habitat loss. Reporters and photographers traveled to Thailand, Japan and Canada examining the threat of the traditional life of the fisherman, a lifestyle vital to the people of the Bayou State.
New Orleanians are famous for preserving the city’s treasures. Our prized architecture is meticulously monitored and maintained. Many of the cities historic restaurants are over a century old and still serve classic dishes from their earliest days, trout meuniere and pommes soufflé. When Creole cream cheese was no longer commercially available in the late 1990s, home cooks brought it back from near extinction — with recipe instructions printed in the Times-Picayune, of course!
The relevance of print
So the battle to save our daily paper is on. Because of age or economic status, many in the city don’t have Internet access. The loss of the daily print paper will significantly disenfranchise them. It appears that even state law will have to be altered by the Louisiana legislature to allow a non-daily newspaper to become the official journal for governmental advertising.
A print edition restricted to Wednesday, Friday and Sunday will mean no Monday morning Saints game recaps, no Fat Tuesday Carnival editions and for me, worst of all, no more reveling in the Thursday food section. In what form and on what day might the food news appear? With every reporter’s job potentially on the chopping block, the future is very uncertain.
Without the Times-Picayune, I’m afraid my morning cup of chicory coffee will never taste the same. I owe so much of what I am today to the inspiration I’ve found between its pages. Now I’m fighting back for the right to my daily newspaper. To join the battle, visit our Facebook community. New Orleans’ 175-year-old newspaper is worth saving.